Meetings business snared in a trap, needs funding help
By Michael Lewis
Corporate excess has combined with the recession to ship our meetings business to the lost luggage department.
Meanwhile, our key resource to stem the outflow — hundreds of millions in tourism development funds — is being shuttled to build a baseball stadium that won't attract visitors.
While that severely impedes our ability to lure meetings, separate teams in business and government have already begun struggling uphill to do just that.
We hail those struggles, together with several national efforts, to keep our pivotal meetings business from evaporating even while we battle for funds to upgrade outdated convention facilities. Those funds, too, are battered by baseball.
After the wave of recessionary corporate frugality struck us, our meetings business took a second hit when Congress moved to restrict corporate travel in a bailout era and President Obama railed against business largesse: "You can't get corporate jets, you can't take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime."
While Mr. Obama and Congress were targeting federal aid recipients, their storm clouds blew over all business travel. Meeting cancellations rained down on resort areas everywhere as businesses opted for austere but safe-from-criticism meeting sites far from sunny beaches and luxury hotels.
That's a big hit for Miami-Dade, where visitors as a whole are in double-digit decline and 11.7% of the 12 million a year who stay overnight attend meetings and conventions. Those 1.4 million guests average 5.85-day stays, so folks attending meetings and conventions fund 8.2 million annual hotel room days.
And they do spend — $1,430.56 per stay, a February 2008 survey shows. That's just above $2 billion a year.
Just over half of that is the meeting side — $1 billion a year jeopardized by recession and government badmouthing of meeting excesses.
That money fuels taxis and limousines, hotels and restaurants and retailers and their employees, and then, as they in turn spend, businesses countywide. So the true impact of meetings alone here is several billion dollars — the cost to taxpayers of a baseball stadium.
Minus tourism development resources diverted to baseball, how do we keep our faltering meeting business from becoming a communitywide disaster that exacerbates the recession's impact?
The industry just took a long stride with a phone blitz, winding up with 41 strong leads to bring meetings here, the smallest 15 rooms and ranging up to 300.
Then this week, a cluster of eight airport-area hotels is to blitz for meetings that could use their facilities.
Both cooperative efforts focus on leveraging the advantages of the county as a meetings destination. Early results are heartening.
Further, a Miami Beach task force is to report to Mayor Matti Herrera Bower this week on 10 focused ways to build visitor business. Some should help lure meetings.
Finally, the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Beacon Council and American Airlines are jointly marketing the county, which should support efforts to lure meetings.
National efforts can remove the stigma on business meetings. Howard Frank, vice chair of Miami-based Carnival Corp., was among industry leaders who met this month with President Obama to help tone down rhetoric that dampens business meeting travel.
The industry also is pushing a Travel Promotion Act, geared to create the nation's first campaign to attract millions more visitors from abroad. Many meetings here target the Caribbean and Latin America, and Miami would benefit hugely from the proposed law.
Meanwhile, the US Travel Association, a lobbying group, has launched a Meetings Mean Business campaign to reassure Congress that business travel is important to the economy.
These worthy efforts can all help stem the erosion in meeting business.
But beyond blitzes and image repair, we lack both heavyweight spending to promote our destination and a top-quality convention hub.
Our new hotels will host impactful groups, but post-recession, big-ticket meetings and the high-end conventions will bypass us unless we revamp the Miami Beach Convention Center or build a new one to compete with other markets.
We can't vie for mass-market meetings because we aren't a low-cost destination, nor do we want to be. Our large new hotels target the market's upper end.
But if we don't quickly to upgrade our convention center, we won't attract much of that market much longer. Yet elected officials ignore the need and strip away funds needed to keep a top industry healthy.
Corporate excess and a recession have hammered us already. Local government shouldn't prolong the agony.